Psalm 51

To the choirmaster.  A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

I have to admit to you that, as I prepared this exhortation, I became a bit fearful in how I would treat it.  On the one hand it is probably one of the most famous Psalms and we’ve all heard it so many times that we think we know how it applies to our lives.  The challenge I face is to get us to open our eyes to spiritual truths that may have been clouded by our familiarity with this Psalm.

Next, I think it is challenging for us to look beyond the fact that this is David’s sin being confessed before the world and to see ourselves and the nature of sin and sinfulness in this passage.

Lastly, the Truths in this Psalm are likely to be very offensive to our ears.  We don’t like to consider the nature of sin and what it deserves before a holy God.  We must confront this.  We must allow the Word to say things to us that we don’t want to hear.  It is in this Psalm that the stench of the Gospel becomes clear to people who don’t want to be confronted with the nature of their sin and their need for a righteousness that is not their own.

As we begin to unpack this Psalm, the subtitle of the Psalm notes the occasion that caused David to write it.  It is written because Nathan the Prophet came in to David and confronted David’s sin when he went in to Bathsheba.

David was on his roof in the cool of the evening and saw Bathsheba, another man’s wife, bathing.  He sent for her and sinned against Bathsheba and her husband.  She became pregnant and David sent for her husband, Uriah, to trick him into going to his wife so that Uriah might believe the child was really his.  When Uriah proved to be a more righteous man than David, David sent a letter, in the hands of Uriah, to have him conveniently killed in battle.  After this, David took Bathsheba to be his wife and nobody in Israel was aware of this great sin.

But God knew.

What kind of satanic influence could have overcome David to make him completely despise the light of divine judgment and think he could get away with this even if nobody else knew?

It was a tremendous mercy of God that He sent Nathan into David to confront him with this sin and wake him up to this horror.  In 2 Sam 12:13, after he’s been utterly exposed, David’s simple reply was:  “I have sinned against the Lord.”  His heart had been freed from a year-long captivity to his sin and clouded vision and he responded in brokenness to the inviting anger of the Lord.

In verses 1-2 of the Psalm, David does not open up with an appeal to God’s justice in his case.  He knows that justice would only leave him condemned.

He prays for mercy.  He prays earnestly not with one request but with several.  He prays for mercy.  He prays that God would provide mercy according to His steadfast love.  He prays for mercy in abundance.

David understands that his only chance is through the countless multitude of the compassions of God.  He understands that his sin is atrocious and that God, according to His holiness, should punish Him.  He understands that only God can blot out his sin as he can do nothing to take away the offenses he has committed.

He prays for washing.  He knows he is filthy.  He understands the stench of his sin and is not satisfied to ask to be washed once but pleads with God to wash him thoroughly, to cleanse him from his sin.

The stain of his sin is deep.  He can not flee from the terror of his own conscience and has nowhere to take his conscience and implores God to take away the filth that he bears.

There is no therapy here.  There is nothing of David trying to learn to integrate his mistakes and learn to love himself anyway.  He understands that soothing words of encouragement from his friends telling him that he’s OK will not do.  He needs a thorough cleansing from the very God who has every right to judge David for the filth of his sin.

Verse 3 is the refrain of a man who knows his sin:  For I know my transgressions.

David is not merely saying that he remembers everything he did.  What he’s wrestling with in Verses 3 through 6 is how horrible sin is and the gulf that exists between a sinner and a holy God.  I want you to remember one thing as we move along through this Psalm:  We will never seriously beg God for pardon until we have understood sin in such a way that it inspires fear in us. If sin has never evoked terror to our souls then we cannot understand the sweetness of pardon that is in the Gospel.

Beloved, many of us don’t know what the true issue with sin is and so Verse 4 adds something that is foreign to us.  David says:  “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

Most of us want to stop David right here.  What are you talking about David?  It wasn’t God who you looked at while bathing.  It wasn’t God who you got pregnant.  You didn’t send God with a letter to be killed in battle.  You didn’t get God involved in any of these sins.  How can you claim that you only sinned against God?  Have you forgotten about Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, and the entire nation that could have been brought down by your selfish sins?!

The issue here is that David understands something profound about sin.  He understands that the whole world could pardon him of any trouble for his sin but it will provide no relief before the bar of God’s justice.

In James 2:10-11, James notes something very important about sin that David underscores here.  First, James says something strange to our ears in verse 10:  10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

Do you see what James is saying?  We could be so perfect as to keep every part of the Law of God and fail at one point and be guilty before the whole Law.  That doesn’t seem to make any sense until James explains what he means in verse 11: 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

I don’t know if you can see what has just been said but James testifies with the rest of the Word of God that the real issue with sinning against the Law is that, when we sin, we sin against a holy, eternal God.  If it’s even at the seemingly smallest point, our sin amounts to raising our hand in rebellion against the God of the universe.  We commit treason with every small sin and every sin is just cause for God to condemn us.

David understands the weight of this rebellion and so he reminds God in the second part of verse 4 that God is justified and blameless in His judgment against sin.  He’s not coming to God arrogantly and telling God that He must forgive him but He understands that God would be perfectly just to condemn sin for what it is.

Paul, in fact, quotes this in Romans 3:3-4 when he is building a case against sinful men before a holy God.  He builds an airtight case that all men are guilty before the bar of justice and that God can and should justly condemn all men.

David knows he would be toast if God judges according to what he deserves.

Verse 5 continues:  “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

David isn’t trying to make excuses here.  David isn’t saying that his conception was sinful.  He’s testifying that he was a sinner from the moment he was conceived.  He’s testifying that he has been a sinner all his life.  He’s testifying that this latest sin is just another aspect of his sinfulness that he has borne before a holy God all the days of his life.

In other words, David is building up the prosecutor’s case against his sin and sinfulness by admitting to God that he not only sinned in this case but has been a sinner since his conception.  David admits that his sole contribution to righteousness has been sin upon sin upon sin.

Have you ever stopped to consider that you’ve been a sinner from birth?  Have you ever repented simply for being a sinner before a holy God?  Have you ever thought about the gulf that exists between you and a holy God even before you do anything more that adds to your guilt?

I know these are hard words, Beloved.  It’s hard to hear as we’re accustomed to self-affirming words.  I’m not talking about you as if I don’t bear the same problem.  We have a problem of sin and sinfulness before a holy God and self-affirmation may help us feel better about ourselves but that only hides the real problem.  David is confronting sin and sinfulness and taking it to the Judge and pleading for the Judge to do something about it because he knows he doesn’t have the power to take away the mountain of guilt.

As verse 6 testifies, God has desired truth in the inward being, and we have even had wisdom taught to us by the Word, and yet we know we have not achieved the level of truth or love or obedience in our inward being that the Law demands.

It ought to overwhelm.  It ought to cause us to despair if we were left alone with this thought.

Are you beginning to feel the anguish of soul?

Are you beginning to feel the weight that this would bring if there was no remedy?

Where would we be if this was the end of the Psalm?  We would only have Paul’s tortured cry at the end of Romans 7:  Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?!

God Himself will deliver.

David calls upon the mercy of God.

Verse 7:  Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean!  Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Nothing in my hand I bring.  Judge of all the earth please be my Savior!

We tend to forget that God had made provisions in His Law that were pictures of Christ to come.  These outward signs were meant to cause the worshipper in the Old Testament to be reminded of the Seed of Abraham who would fulfill the demands of the Covenant for Covenant breakers.

Hyssop was a branch used to sprinkle water to cleanse the worshipper of God as he came to the Temple.  The outward cleansing act was to be joined with a heart clinging to the feet of God in repentance begging for mercy and trusting that God provides what He promises.

Hyssop had no magical qualities.  You couldn’t just get sprinkled and make a sign out of mere ceremony but it was to point to something outside of itself.

David wants his conscience washed whiter than snow.  He wants the reality that the sign points to.  He wants the Judge to be the Covenant keeper on His behalf and knows that, only by this grace, will his conscience be cleansed.

You may recall that David was told by Nathan in 2 Sam 12 that God had forgiven him of his many sins.  Why is David asking for more here?  Some might accuse David of adding to his sin by not trusting in the declaration of forgiveness that Nathan had already brought him on his first confession.

I think we can understand though.  Can’t we?  Have you ever asked God for forgiveness for sins so great that you wonder how He can ever forgive them?  Does the guilt of those sins that you brought before the throne of grace ever come back to your mind and assail you?

If you’re anything like me then this happens regularly.  I have many sins.  I have many heinous sins.  I stop to consider them at times and wonder how a filthy person like me can enter into the presence of a Holy God and I take great comfort that God is patient with me.  He understands my weakness.  He understands that I need to come to Him again in my weakness and say:  “Yes Lord, I know you have promised forgiveness and cleansing but right now I’m weak.  Right now I’m lacking trust that you could possibly have forgiven these things in Christ.  Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief!”

God condescends.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside me as my advocate and reminds me that I am His child.

And so the Psalm begins to move to deliverance from guilt.

Verse 8:  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

Remind us of your mercy Lord.  These sins have caused our entire being to feel fractured.  The pain of our guilt is as if our bones are broken within us.  Straighten them.  Heal them.  Restore us from mourning to the joy of our cleansing.

Verse 9:  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities.

Lord, even as you promised David through Old Covenant signs, you have promised to take away our sin by what these signs testify to.  You have blotted out iniquity by placing that sin and guilt away from us and onto another.  Remind us of this as we place our trust in you.

Verse 10:  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Lord, this depends completely on you.  I cannot create.  I only have the heart that I was born with.  I need the power that spoke light out of nothing.  I need the creative power that only You have.  Give me a clean heart.  I rely completely upon you for a transformed spirit.

Verse 11:  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

Father, you have every right to cut me off.  I plead your mercy that you would keep me in your presence and that your indwelling Spirit would testify peace and not wrath unto my weary soul.

Verses 13-15 testify to what our hope in deliverance from sin and the testimony of a cleansed spirit might provide.  David desires, as we all should desire, that we might teach others of God’s goodness to sinners who come broken unto Him.

When we’re in the mire of our sin, our mouths are closed and we don’t know how to open them up except to cry out and wonder how God can cleanse us but when He delivers us, when He frees us from the bondage of sin and guilt, our mouths are looses.  Our lips open up in praise to a merciful Savior!  We proclaim boldly and gladly to a lost and dying world because we are as needy as they.

Open my lips Lord.  Open my mouth to sing all of your praise!

Verses 16-19 close with the nature of sacrifice and God’s good intentions toward us.  David reminds us that we can never come to God and go through the motions.  We cannot come with hearts that are cold to the offense of our sin.  We cannot come to God expecting magic simply by going to Church or going through the externals of religion.  David knows that the sacrifices of God always pointed beyond themselves.  He knew that he couldn’t just bring a bull to the altar and walk away unchanged in heart and mind.

David saw something from afar that has been revealed up close to us.  These sacrifices merely caused God’s wrath for sin to pass over for a season until what they signified came in the fullness of time.

A people were called to be holy and they proved over and over to be unholy.  Weary from sin they came time after time, year after year, and brought sacrifices.  Blood flowed as a river and the stench of human sin filled the nostrils and the souls of men who looked forward to a sacrifice that would deal with this once for all.

And, in the fullness of time, it came.  We could not bridge the gulf and so God put a veil of flesh around Himself and came and dwelt among us.  He came near to us with our heavy burden of sins and invited us to trust in Christ and place the heavy yoke of sin and guilt on His strong shoulders.

Christ carried our heavy burden of sin to Calvary, was nailed on a cross and bore the full weight of wrath from a Holy God so that we, in Him, would die to sin.

Christ conquered death and sin.  Once for all!  He rose again, and we who cling to His feet in trust, rose with Him.

Death has been swallowed up in victory.  The judgment has occurred.  Our lips are opened to praise God.

I’ve been meditating on how profound Romans 1:16-17 is as it introduces the Gospel to be unpacked in the rest of the book:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Doesn’t it seem odd that God calls the Gospel:  “The righteousness of God revealed…”?

In other words, we wonder how that can be because we all understand that God’s righteousness only condemns if we’re trying to attain that righteousness ourselves.

Martin Luther struggled with this for years.  He admitted he often hated God thinking of this righteousness as he saw no way to achieve that righteousness no matter how much he devoted himself to the monastic life.

And then, one day, he happened upon a commentary by Augustine on Romans 1:17.  Augustine wrote:  “This is called the righteousness of God, not with which he is righteous, but because with it he makes us righteous.”

And at this glorious truth, Martin Luther said that it was as if his chains had fallen off and a doorway to heaven opened and he walked through.

Beloved, the power of the Gospel is that God provides the righteousness we lack.  He placed our unrighteousness upon the Son, punished the Son in our place, and granted us His righteousness freely.  We believe and receive with empty hand.  That’s the glory of the Good News.  That’s the confidence that David expressed from looking from afar.

Furthermore, when we fall into heinous sin, as David did, God does not abandon us but comes near us afresh to take away the pain of our guilt and remind us of His favor toward those who cling to Christ by His sustaining power.

I want to close with a story that is found in Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

Kids, please listen to this story as this is meant for you too.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Graceless who lived in the City of Destruction.  He felt himself to be carrying a heavy burden that nobody could see until one day a man named Evangelist told him where he could have his burden taken from him.

Graceless set out on a difficult journey until he came to the foot of the Cross.  There his heavy burden fell from him and he felt himself to be a new man.  He also had a new name:  he was no longer Graceless.  His name was Christian.

From that point, Christian went through many trials and came upon the House Beautiful where he was refreshed for many days and given armor:  a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

As he continued on his journey, he came into the Valley of Humiliation and this is where our story gets interesting:

Then I saw in my dream that Christian was entered into the Valley of Humiliation; and here he had no easy time of it.  For he had gone but a little way when he saw a dreadful fiend coming across the plain to meet him.  The name of this fiend was Apollyon, and he was too hideous to behold.

His body was covered with scales, like a fish; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear; his mouth was like the mouth of a lion, and fire and smoke came out of his nostrils.

Christian was much afraid.  As the monster came flying toward him he knew not what to do.  He had half a mind to run back; but he knew that Apollyon would soon overtake him.

“I will stand my ground and do what I can,” he said to himself; and he went boldly forward to meet the dreadful fiend.

Apollyon came swiftly on, and gruffly saluted Christian:  ” Ho, there, you fellow! Who are you, and whence have you come?”

“I have come from the City of Destruction, and my name is Christian,” answered the pilgrim. ”  I am on my way to the Celestial Land.”

“Huh!” growled the fiend. “Don’t you know that I am the king of the City of Destruction?  You are my subject, and you are trying to run away from me.”

“True, I was born in your country,” said Christian, “but I am not your subject.  I have promised myself to the King of the Celestial Land.”

Then was Apollyon very angry, and he would have struck down the pilgrim at once, had he not hoped to gain him over.  He roared terribly, and cried, “You are a rebel and a traitor, and deserve nothing but death at my hands.  Yet I will forgive you if you will turn now and go back to my city and my service.”

But Christian stood his ground bravely and defied the fiend.

“Beware, Apollyon!” he cried.  “I am in the King’s highway. Therefore, take heed to thyself.”

“Ha!” answered Apollyon.  “What care I for the King’s highway?” And with one foot on one side of the road and one on the other, he stood directly in front of the pilgrim.

“Now I have you!” he said; and he drew flaming darts from his breast and threw them so that they fell like hail all around Christian’s head.

But Christian held up his shield to protect himself, and drawing his sword, rushed boldly upon his foe.

Then there was a fight such as neither you nor I have ever seen.  The giant fiend and the valiant man wrestled and strove, they struck and parried, they pressed this way and that; and neither seemed to get the better of the other.

Christian was wounded in two or three places; and yet for a whole hour he stood up against his foe.  At length, however, his foot slipped and he fell; and his sword flew out of his hand.

“Now I have thee!” shouted Apollyon.

But as the fiend raised his arm to fetch the last blow, Christian quickly stretched out his hand and recovered his sword.  He leaped to his feet, crying, “Rejoice not against me, mine enemy. When I fall, I shall arise!

With that, he gave the fiend a deadly thrust which made him pause and start back.  Then Christian gave him another stroke and another.

Apollyon saw that he had met his match.  He spread his dragon wings and flew away, over the plain; and Christian saw him no more.

The pilgrim looked up and smiled.  “Thanks be to Him that delivered me out of the mouth of the lion, and to Him that did help me against Apollyon,” he said.

Then there came to him a hand with some of the leaves of the tree of life; and he took these and laid them upon his wounds, and he was healed immediately.

And he sat down to eat bread and to drink from the bottle that was given him by the maidens of the House Beautiful.